After getting back to the ramp and being dropped off at the campground by Kevin VanDam at about 7:15 p.m., I saw Todd Faircloth sitting in his boat rigging for the final day of practice. Despite the fact that he was on 16-17 pounds of smallmouth in practice, it didn't take long for Todd, who was a model of consistency and composure all season long, to reveal that he might be feeling the pressure of the points race coming down to the final event. What Todd didn't know — and what I couldn't tell him — was that KVD was not on a good bite. Our best five that day might have gone 14 1/2 pounds. After talking with Todd more I learned that he wasn't spending any time on largemouth, either.
Not wanting to have any effect on the outcome of the tournament or any angler's strategy, I could not share even the slightest details of my day with VanDam, nor could I tell Kevin of any part of Todd's strategy or practice results. After talking with both of them separately, by the end of practice Todd appeared to be on a better bite, although both anglers were confident they could do what they needed to do by focusing on smallmouth. If they had good limits over 15 pounds, then they would look for largemouth. This was the one tournament where neither guy was necessarily fishing to win the tournament. They were both focused on whatever they needed to do to win the AOY title, and both knew they would likely have to adjust their strategies according to the other's first day results.
On the first day of the tournament, the field was sent out in order of their Angler of the Year rankings. Faircloth led the points race by 21 points and was the first boat out. He was also the first to weigh in. His head was down and he was disappointed to have only brought 10 pounds, 9 ounces to the scales. But his disappointment quickly turned to relief when KVD weighed in next and only had 4 ounces more. In 59th place versus Faircloth's 62nd position, KVD had only made up 6 of the 21-point deficit.
Here's where it gets interesting. Remember, both guys were focusing on smallmouth and Faircloth was catching good limits in practice. On Day 1, both Todd and Kevin weighed in limits of largemouth. There was not one brown fish in either bag!
Back at camp that night Todd new he had narrowly escaped the clutches of an 800-pound gorilla. He told me that he only had one fish by 3 p.m. and scrambled in the last hour to catch a limit. That wasn't the first time he had escaped disaster this season, and I fully expected him to recover and make his way into the 50 cut on Day 2. Of course, I also expected KVD to do the same.
On Day 2, the field was inverted so KVD and Faircloth were the last two pros to weigh in. KVD went first with 13 pounds, 1 ounce of smallmouth to squeak into the cut in 46th place. It all came down to whether Faircloth could keep himself in the top 60 to keep the points race going one more day or relinquish the title right then and there. Eleven and a half pounds would have done it, but all Faircloth could find that day was 6-6.
His worst day of the season came at the worst possible time. His 93rd place finish in the tournament would give up the points lead and crown KVD the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year award for the fourth time in his career. A disappointed Todd Faircloth congratulated KVD, kept his head up and walked off the stage like a champion. He earned some well-deserved recognition this year, and the fact is that he may have felt the pressure from all the people that were supporting and rooting for him more than he felt it from KVD.
Enter Mike McClelland, another incredible angler who has fished with a new level of confidence this season. He credits KVD's fish-to-win rather than fish-for-checks mentality for putting his mind in the right mode for success. McClelland, 3rd in points, got the poorest start of the top 3, but with Faircloth's results he smelled blood in the water and tried to take that $100,000 second place money out of Faircloth's pocket.
Incredibly, McClelland had a terrible 69th place start to the tournament, but when the leaders stumbled he took advantage of the opportunity to climb his way into the 12 cut and give Faircloth a run for that $100 grand.
There's a $45,000 difference between 2nd and 3rd in Angler of the Year bonus money, and Faircloth was taking Junior World Championship contenders fishing while McClelland was trying to orchestrate his own comeback. A 4th place finish or better in the tournament would have dropped Faircloth down to 3rd in points, and would have likely shattered his already broken heart.
An 11th place finish for McClelland delivered a fist-pumping rush of emotion over Todd Faircloth. For the first time since March he could finally relax and celebrate the remarkable season he had, and back at camp, surrounded by his friends that night, he did just that.
Guys like KVD, Todd Faircloth and Mike McClelland proved that they had the ability to make the right decisions and catch fish just about everywhere we went. One right decision after another builds confidence, and both Faircloth and McClelland fished like champions all season, building on each day's success. KVD had a bad tournament in Texas; McClelland's was at Erie. Faircloth's bad tournament happened to be the last one of the year. Of the full field of Elite pros, only Mike McClelland made every 50 cut and earned a check in all 11 events.
For the first time in his career Todd Faircloth put himself in position to win the Angler of the Year, and now that he's experienced the pressure of it all coming down to the wire, I'll bet it makes him more of a threat next time. Success fuels confidence, and with over $3.2 million worth of good decisions on the water, Kevin VanDam remains the undisputed King of Confidence.